Court: Warrant needed to search car's 'black box'

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE-- In what is likely a first-of-its-kind case in Florida, a divided appeals court Wednesday said authorities needed a warrant before they could download information recorded in a car's "black box."

The ruling by a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal approved a defendant's request to suppress evidence that police retrieved from such a device in 2013 in a DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide case in Palm Beach County. More broadly, the ruling reflects a type of question that courts face as more and more information is captured on electronic devices.

So-called black boxes in vehicles record information about a wide range of issues such as speed, braking and steering. In the Palm Beach County case, authorities did not get a warrant before downloading the information from an impounded car that had been driven by defendant Charles Worsham Jr.

"Extracting and interpreting the information from a car's black box is not like putting a car on a lift and examining the brakes or tires," said Wednesday's majority opinion, written by appeals-court Judge Robert Gross and joined by Judge Mark Klingensmith. "Because the recorded data is not exposed to the public, and because the stored data is so difficult to extract and interpret, we hold there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information, protected by the Fourth Amendment, which required law enforcement in the absence of exigent circumstances to obtain a warrant before extracting the information from an impounded vehicle."

Judge Alan Forst, in a dissenting opinion, pointed to a lack of legal decisions about the issue, with cases in New York and California appearing to be the "only published precedent."

"Obviously, searches of EDRs (electronic data recorders) in motor vehicles were not on the minds of the first United States Congress when the Fourth Amendment was introduced in 1789, and the United States Constitution's right to privacy sheds no light on the subject (particularly since there is no provision actually describing such a right to privacy)," he wrote.

But Forst concluded that police retrieving the data in the Worsham case was "not a search or seizure protected by the Fourth Amendment."

"The data that the government extracted from the vehicle that was owned and driven by appellee (Worsham) in this case was not information for which appellee or any other owner/driver had a reasonable expectation of privacy," Forst wrote. "The data was not personal to appellee, was not password protected by appellee, and was not being collected and maintained solely for the benefit of appellee. The EDR was installed by the vehicle's manufacturer at the behest of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and … the purpose of the data collection is highway and driver safety."

The majority opinion did not provide detailed information about the fatal accident, but a December 2015 story by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper said Worsham crashed a Fiat on Oct. 6, 2013, with passenger Amanda Patterson getting killed. The story said Delray Beach police extracted the information from the black box.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jack Schramm Cox ruled that the information should be suppressed, leading prosecutors to take the case to the 4th District Court of Appeal.

The majority opinion Wednesday cited other court cases that have addressed whether police needed warrants to get information stored on cell phones.

"A car's black box is analogous to other electronic storage devices for which courts have recognized a reasonable expectation of privacy," the opinion said. "Modern technology facilitates the storage of large quantities of information on small, portable devices. The emerging trend is to require a warrant to search these devices."


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